Core strength and flexibility

Core strength and flexibility are important for the movements we perform every day: lifting children or groceries, gardening and recreational activities. Having strong torso muscles — where movement originates — provides the source of our body's stability and reduces the risk of injury.

The exercises below focus on strengthening the body as a whole, rather than specific muscle groups. Core strength is more than just crunches, although abdominal strength is a huge factor. These also incorporate back muscles, balance and flexibility.

Testing Your Core Strength

This simple test will give you an idea of your beginning core strength. You will need a flat surface, a mat and a watch or clock where you can easily count seconds.

1. Start in the plank position, elbows on the mat. Hold for 60 seconds.

2. Lift your right arm off the mat, hold for 15 seconds. Return arm to mat and repeat with left arm.

3. Lift your right leg off the mat and hold for 15 seconds. Return leg to mat and repeat with left leg.

4. Lift your left leg and right arm off the mat and hold for 15 seconds. Return to starting position. Repeat with right leg and left arm.

5. Return to beginning plank position and hold for 30 seconds.

How did you do?

If you completed the entire sequence (no cheating on the time) you have good core strength.

If you could not complete the test fully, you need some improvement. This means the muscles that surround your back and abdomen do not have the strength to adequately support your body's movement, making you more prone to back and muscle strain.

You may want to place a rolled towel under the small of your back for added support. Warm up with 10 minutes of light cardio before you begin. Do these two to three times per week for best results. Avoid any exercise that causes pain and check with your doctor if you have any injuries or medical conditions.

Medicine-ball wood chop

1. Stand with feet wider than hip-width. Hold medicine ball by right hip with both hands.

2. While looking straight ahead, contract abdominal muscles and turn torso slightly to the right.

3. As you release the twist, lift medicine ball across the body until your arms are extended over your left shoulder.

4. Release and repeat left hip to right shoulder. Perform 10 to 12 repetitions.

Ball pass

1. Begin by lying on your back with legs straight up (bend them if needed) and hold an exercise ball straight up over your body with your hands.

2. Put ball between your feet, squeezing them to keep ball in place. Lower your arms overhead and legs down toward the floor.

3. Bring arms and legs back up and take ball in your hands.

4. Lower ball overhead and legs down toward the floor again and continue, exchanging ball between the hands and feet for 8 to 12 repetitions.

Ball plank with leg lift

1. Get into plank position with your feet/shins resting on the ball, hands under shoulders and abs contracted.

2. Keeping core tight, lift right leg off the ball a few inches and lower, then lift left leg off the ball and lower.

3. Continue alternating legs for 8 to 10 repetitions on each side.

Side bridge

1. Lie on your side, balanced on your forearm, with feet and hips stacked on top of one another.

2. Holding torso steady, slowly contract your abs and lift your hips off the floor (don't sink into your shoulders).

3. Lower and repeat. To modify, keep your knees bent or take feet wider rather than stacked. Repeat for two sets of 10 repetitions on each side.

Seated torso twist

1. Sit on the floor with your legs out and knees slightly bent, holding a medicine ball in your hands. Lean back slightly with your torso straight.

2. Rotate to the right, squeezing abs, and touch medicine ball to the floor.

3. Come back to center and rotate to the left, again touching medicine ball to the floor.

4. Repeat, alternating sides for two sets of 10 repetitions (one rep is to the right and left).

Roll-ups with the ball

1. Begin seated on the floor, legs and spine straight, with an exercise ball extended out in front in your hands.

2. Pull abs in and engage pelvis as you roll back onto the mat. You should feel each vertebrae make contact, taking ball overhead as you recline.

3. Roll back up to start, reaching forward with ball as you rise to a sitting position.

4. Repeat for 10 to 12 repetitions. Bend knees to modify this move if your back arches off the floor.

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